It was a cloudy day in April, 2004. It was cloudy in my mind. And storm clouds were brewing over my son as he refused to write his name on his painting. I knew the path we were traveling was getting weedy and we needed to find another way. We are now extremely happy with our educational situation and I feel compelled to tell you my story.
I decided to stay home with my son, Travis, from the day I got pregnant. I left my job as an early childhood resource and referral agency manager. It was a joy to watch him growing and I knew I could not send him to school where I would miss him all day. Travis always knew what he wanted but sometimes needed ample time to transition or express those needs. I remember when he was 26 months old and did not talk much. I believe he was waiting for perfect speech before speaking. Using sign language (or the grunt and point!) he expressed that he did not want to wear a diaper to bed any more. I informed him I did not want to wash sheets every day. We settled on the arrangement that I would no longer put a diaper on at night if he could be dry all this night. That was it. He was dry and so I held up my end of the deal. He was night dry before ever using the toilet during waking hours. This was a first indication to me that he did not need to be taught or trained.
This experience led me to believe he would be unhappy in the public school classroom. My mother is a Waldorf homeshooling consultant and she helped us get started with pre-school and kindergarten activities and planning. I did all the right things- contacted and obtained permission from the school, made lesson plans, purchased natural materials, memorized stories, etc. I loved the ideas and philosophy of Waldorf education in the home but as the Kindergarten year passed, something kept nagging at the back of my mind. My independent son appeared stubborn and it seemed as though we battled our way through the 2 hours of “schooling” every day. I spent the summer of 2003 researching unschooling. I felt that maybe if we were less scheduled and formal, we would enjoy our time together instead of arguing. I read every John Holt book I could find. I researched the internet, talked to Unschoolers, and read Life Learning, Mothering, and other publications.
Armed with all this new information, we started the 1st grade year with Waldorf activities and materials but no set curriculum. We had a field trip day every week and no set daily schedule. I spent the year worrying about Travis not learning to read and although we got along better, we still had days of terrible frustration. He was learning many things about his world. He spent hours playing with Lego, exploring the forest, discussing stories and socializing with friends and family. His experiences were adding up to a wealth of knowledge but I could not measure it and prove to the homeshool doubters that he was successful and therefore, it frustrated me. I knew part of the problem was Travis was an only child and we lived in isolation in rural Appalachian Ohio. We were both extremely lonely and I felt burdened by being the solely responsible person for his education. It weighed heavily upon my daily interactions. My husband was very supportive of homeschooling. He had terrible public school memories as well, but it was not enough to have his evening support. Travis and I were all the other had for 9 hours every day. Steiner, the Austrian philosopher and founder of Waldorf education, said at around age seven, a child needs to have different adults influencing their life. I still knew there had to be more than loneliness and his need for others. Whenever he drew a schematic of machines or in his plant journal, I wanted him to write his name and date. He hated writing and it resulted in a daily battle that was hurting both of us. Again, the nagging feeling would not recede. Something was wrong in our approach. I had the basic belief that all kids learn in their own way so it must be the teaching that was the problem. I said it over and over, “I must be the problem.” It was a mantra, “what am I doing wrong, what is wrong with my teaching?” And then it hit me like a stone: Travis did not need to be taught how to stay dry at night. Perhaps he did not need to be taught how to read. Education is in the learning, not the teaching. WOW. What a huge shift. Now what? I flashed back to my childhood learning experiences and I remembered the relationship I had with my family…
…My mother was a teacher who left the second grade classroom to have children in 1960. She was the quintessential fantastic homemaker. She baked bread every week, had a garden, and encouraged our forays into poultry farming, beekeeping, 4-H, hot air balloons, and a million other projects that my three brothers and I decided needed to be explored. My father was a philosophical seeker and his jaunts to the library and other discussion groups always led to the subject of parenting and spiritual childhoods, concrete family building activities, etc. My childhood was filled with lots of activities outside my public school hours. There was always a new book in our home library to read; Everything from early research on dyslexia to Summerhill (this was the book by A.S Neill about the Progressive and Democratic school he founded in England.), to Steiner translations. I truly believe my life learning is comprised of all my experiences and the time that I was given to reflect on these experiences. My parents supported my desire to graduate early from high school and travel to Europe and be a Nanny before going to college. It was the first clue that real learning was based on following your interests and learning would come from the quest of seeking knowledge.
One of the books in my family library was Free at Last by Daniel Greenburg (one of the founders of The Sudbury School in Framingham, Massachusetts- a Democratic School). I read it at the same time the movie Born Free was in the theatres. It was a treat to go to the movies as the 70’s were financially hard for my parents. The movie was about a lioness raised by humans and the desire to release her back to the wild. I have always linked freedom to these two media. I knew someday my kids would get the same opportunity for experiential learning and the bonus of greater freedom during the traditional schooling hours…
…and so my journey in the present continued:
My 2004 summertime quest was to find out all I could about democratic schooling.
I knew there were no Democratic Schools near us. I did find one in West Virginia- about a two and half hour drive. I knew I did not want to commute and I still wanted to be with him during the day. I wanted us to have friends who believed in the same approach to learning. I found what we were looking for. It was The Highland School- Democracy in Action. It was a small school with the average of 10-15 students per year. Additionally, they were hiring an intern staff member. I applied, got the job which included a small room above the school where we could sleep. It was a difficult year. We were apart from Daddy all week. But the school time was wonderful. Travis was learning what he wanted, when he wanted and within the structure of a Democratic school, he was doing the things I felt as though I was forcing him to do only a year earlier.
Democratic schools can differ depending on the laws of the state where it’s open. It can also differ based on the students who are there each year. At Highland School, the rules are made each year. Some Sudbury Schools have a rule book that carries on from year to year. The Highland School was re-opening after a four year closure. This was a wonderful opportunity for all of us to create a democracy from the beginning. There were days that were very hard and frustrating because I had to let go of my parental control. Travis ran for treasurer the first month. He won the election and was working with a $200 budget. It reinforced his love of math and helped him gain responsibility and writing skills.
Oh, yeah, writing. Remember my frustration with “making” him sign his name on his papers? In the structure of safety and awareness and care for each other at the school, Travis had to sign his name whenever he wanted to go out of bounds. He likes to walk on the nature trail every day so he was writing his name daily. He also had to sign out the use of dishes and for a time slot on the computer. He writes his name often and out of his own desire to be a part of the school community. I continue to worry about his not reading but he is taking in so much information from auditory experiences and from the social interactions with other students. They all learn from each other in fascinating ways.
I see how much information is absorbed when you ask for the information and when you have the time and space to process the new information. There are no students the same age as Travis. Some are avid readers. Some came from public school and hate math. Some cannot tell time. Some are very gifted artists. The students spend a lot of time sitting around the table doing their own work and interrupt each other to ask questions and to process events and activities. They spend time reflecting on a hike last week or “Remember when we had that big fight and then you made me laugh and then we decided to play that new game we invented?” The whole quality of the school was helping me cement the idea of trusting in Travis’ real path toward learning.
We spent the summer of 2005 getting a job for Daddy in West Virginia. He started last July. We bought a house in August just before the start of the second year. I was hired by the school members and we have just finished our second year there. It was an exciting year filled with an Exchange Student from Japan who lived with us and many big discussions about the future of the school and disagreements among students and families. These were all challenging issues in which Travis participated. It helped to develop his sense of social justice, communication skills, and how to deal with anger and frustration in appropriate ways. He has learned commitment in the face of wanting to quit, but knowing the rewards of direct democracy have empowered him to stick with it. He also knows the great joy of learning and sharing with others both older and younger.
So how has our life changed? The belief and trust in my child’s innate nature to learn what he needs and when he needs it has grown stronger. This trust part continues to be the hardest part of my journey. For our family, we continue to “unschool” in the evenings and weekends, and in the summer. I view the biggest change to our philosophy to be in the 6 hours a day that we have a larger “family” participating in, and contributing to, our learning experiences.
The school is expanding appropriately at the same time as Travis needs a larger group of friends. The School Meeting is building a boarding school this summer in hopes of attracting more foreign students and domestic students who want a democratic education but live too far away. Travis helped with the design of the new building and enjoys sharing with his growing group of friends.
Travis intends to graduate from The Highland School at around age 18. We both made it to our physical destination and our lifelong learning journey continues.
This article was originally printed in Life Learning Magazine November/December 2006 issue.
Photo by Jack Delano. Going to town on Saturday afternoon, Greene County, Georgia. May 1941. (LOC)